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Foreign Policy

Power Struggle in the Indian Ocean

Apr 28, 2023
  • Sajjad Ashraf

    Former Adjunct Professor, National University of Singapore

The Indian Ocean is a key competitive flashpoint between the United States and China, despite receiving less media attention than places like the South China Sea or western Europe. Several key energy-producing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are located in the region. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), on average more than 50 percent of global shipping and 70 percent of global oil shipments pass through the Indian Ocean. In addition to providing commercial shipping routes and an abundance of energy resources, the Indian Ocean is also home to three crucial maritime choke points, making it one of the most important and strategic waterways in the world.

The Malacca Strait is one chokepoint and is located between Malaysia, Singapore and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The Malacca Strait connects Southeast Asia and South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. The Strait of Hormuz is another, connecting the Persian Gulf to the wider Indian Ocean, and is the most critical choke point as it allows energy to pass from the Gulf region onwards to China, Japan, Korea and the broader Southeast Asia region. The third, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which flows between the Horn of Africa and Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Equally important is the Mozambique Channel between Madagascar and Mozambique, which is a key trading route for goods transiting the Cape of Good Hope to Europe, the Americas and Asia.

Whichever country that manages to command these choke points will have a disproportionate advantage over commanding shipping routes, energy flows, and overall geopolitical security in the region. Other littoral states of the Indian Ocean will therefore remain dependent upon these powerful states for their freedom of the seas.

China, during the last 40 years, has become the world’s biggest mercantile nation. As reported by WTO, its imports and exports in 2021 totaled $6 trillion. China is poised to become the world’s biggest economy soon. China’s military modernization is necessary to protect its economic interests and directly challenges American predominance in the Indian Ocean. This struggle will only grow in importance as both countries vie for global hegemony.

Building on its anti-piracy missions around the Horn of Africa, China has emerged as a strong partner for the islands and littoral countries of the Indian Ocean. In 2017 China set up its first overseas military facility in Djibouti on the Indian Ocean coast. While France, Japan, and the United States already have facilities in Djibouti, the Chinese base cements its presence as a key player in the region. China’s Maritime Silk Road, under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has provided an added platform for China to expand its economic and military reach.

China has invested heavily in infrastructure projects such as ports, roads, and railways in countries along the Indian Ocean, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. This aims to improve connectivity and promote economic development in the region, which will further facilitate China's exports passing through the Indian Ocean.

China has therefore in recent years sought to increase its naval deployments into the Indian Ocean and developed what some analysts call a “string of pearls” – a network of commercial facilities along the Indian Ocean littorals. This includes Humbantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan and Djibouti. China is also known to be seeking more of such facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Seychelles. In pursuit of acquiring these port facilities, China mirrors a template left behind by the European colonizers and the U.S., beginning with Portuguese settlement in Macau 1557. Hopefully, its objectives for acquiring these ports are different. 

China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean has raised concerns among some countries, particularly India, which sees China's activities as a strategic challenge to its influence in the region. In its pursuit to neutralize China, India finds ready partners in the U.S. and some of its Anglo-Saxon allies like Australia and Britain, as well as Japan. The Chinese believe that the secretive American base at Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean and its other facilities like in Djibouti, Singapore, Australia and its four foundation military agreements with India are a potential threat and thus inimical to its interests. From the Chinese standpoint, alliances like the Quad (comprised of Japan, Australia, India and the U.S.) and AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and the U.S.) demonstrate American intentions of containing China’s rise, and India, in addition to Japan and Australia, are seen as a proxy to the American hegemonic ambitions.

India too, is conspicuously reinforcing its capabilities in the region. After establishing an integrated tri-service command in 2001, India is in advanced stages of setting up facilities allowing additional warships, aircraft, troops, and drones to be stationed in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. With the last of these islands only 90 nautical miles from Indonesia and the Malacca Strait, India’s military deployment is dangerously close to the lifeline of China’s economy. 

India has also obtained rights to a listening post at Duqm port in Oman, to monitor suspicious Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean. Further, by partnering with Japan, India has logistics access to Djibouti port.

On the island of Alaléga, owned by Mauritius, India has built a 3000-meter runway capable of hosting the Indian Navy’s Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft. This will enable India to keep an eye on this part of the ocean and “will constitute a key staging post in the Indian maritime domain awareness,” says a report done by the Australian National University National Security College on the Indian Ocean. 

As military actions in the Indian Ocean increase in frequency, a salient prediction of Alfred Mahan, called the most important American naval strategist of the 19th century, seems to be coming true: “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean, dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas. In the 21st century, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters.”

Rising powers inevitably challenge the existing order by attempting to protect its economic interests with a stronger military capacity. Today China is in that position. The challenge for India is to ensure that it is not a front for the outsiders and for China to allow India’s legitimate interests to be accommodated within the wider regions around the Indian Ocean. Only then this will become an ‘Asian Century.’

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